Friday, September 27, 2013

Women in the Catholic Church in the Era of Francis: More Valuable Commentary

Last week, a day after Pope Francis's bombshell interview was released, as I discussed Mary Hunt's reflections on the interview at her WATER site, I wrote,

The response of Catholic women to Francis's interview yesterday is the most important response of all to be considered at this point in the history of the Catholic church--if Francis's words mean anything at all.

In the week that has followed, so much valuable commentary about the role of women in the church is appearing at various places in response to Francis's interview, that I find it difficult to keep up with this all-important conversation. Here's at least a smattering of the commentary, insofar as I have been reading it:

There's been an important conversation in the past several days at National Catholic Reporter, after Phyllis Zagano published an article there noting that the editors of America had dropped from the text a statement Pope Francis made when his interviewer, Father Antonio Spadaro, asked him about women's place in the church. The statement, which critically qualifies and expands his remarks about women's place in the church: "It is necessary to widen the space for more incisive feminine presence in the church,"  or "'It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church."

As Zagano notes, Francis appears to be reacting here to those who insist that there is "no space" for women in the church--i.e., in its leadership structures. His remark appears to be designed to open a space that many others have considered closed. 

Zagano also finds that the America editors dropped a sentence from Spadaro's text, from the questions he asked Francis: 

In an interview he [Pope Francis] had affirmed that the feminine presence in the church has not fully emerged, because the temptation of machismo has not left space to make visible the role women are entitled to within the community.

And that sentence is, of course, critically important for all of us who had wondered what on earth Francis meant by the mysterious phrase about women's machismo that appeared in the America version of the interview. It appears Francis was not attacking assertive women as women trying to appear macho, but was, instead, critiquing the entire system of machismo that makes no room for women. 

As Dennis Coday has noted for NCR, America's editors have apologized for the omissions, and state that they were inadvertent. Even so, the discovery that very important lines, both having to do with the question of "space" for women in the church, were omitted from the America account of the interview has elicited lively exchanges at the NCR site. 

Commenting on that lively discussion, at Enlightened Catholicism Colleen Kochivar-Baker notes, "In reality Francis is calling for a far more incisive role for women in the Church and again, for a much deeper theology of women." And then she goes on to say, 

I have not suddenly decided Francis understands the role of women any deeper than I did in my post about mothers and sons and mothers and daughters, but I do think he knows his view is not particularly deep, and that the real situation on the ground is that the Church's very survival is wrapped up in women not walking out the doors.  He seems really willing to prevent that by any means short of ordination.  And so lots of people are suddenly talking about the potential for opening the deaconate to women and elevating women to the position of cardinal.  These are nice, long overdue concepts for giving women a more incisive place in the Church.  They would be easy to enact and not require much of a change in Canon Law.  Those are the pluses.  The negatives are two fold.  They leave the celibate male clerical structure in place with all it's attendant problems and they still leave women (and married men) with a second class status vis a vis baptism.  In other words, close but no cigars.

In NCRMichelle A. Gonzales zeroes in on what Francis means by speaking of machismo--a word she never dreamed she'd hear a pope utter. She notes,

Francis rejects a female machismo grounded in an essentialist vision of men and women. Machismo is the Spanish word used to describe the particular incarnation of sexism in Latino/a and Latin American communities. 


By evoking the word machismo, Francis is not only taking a critical stance against social hierarchy; he is also reminding us of his Latin American roots. He is rejecting this patriarchal, essentialist understanding of women that limits their full humanity and the full humanity of men as well, reducing them to gender stereotypes. Francis does not take a dismissive stance toward the chorus of grass-roots, pastoral and academic women who have for decades begged the church to be more open to the notion of women's authority in the church. Rejecting machismo is a rejection of patriarchy and its limited construction of women's voice and authority. Francis calls us into a deeper conversation about the authority of women grounded in a theology of women. This will lead, he seems to imply, to finding an authoritative role for women.

In El País by way of Rebel Girl at Iglesia Descalza, Juan Arias, who thinks, along with Colleen, that Francis could rectify gender imbalance by appointing a woman cardinal, observes that Francis's comments about opening "space" for women are about solving a problem of a church that has become one-handed and one-legged: 

Francisco wants to solve that problem during his pontificate because he is convinced that the Church today is one-handed and one-legged without women in their rightful place, which would be neither more nor less than the one they had in early Christianity, where they exerted a huge role. At least until Paul coined his theology of the cross, masculinized the Church, and turned it into a hierarchy. 

In Il Messaggero and also by way of Iglesia Descalza, Lucetta Scaraffia notes how strange it seems that the question of opening space in the governing structures of the Catholic church is even considered a question at all, in a world in which the opening of such central governing spaces to women has long since taken place in the secular sphere. Citing the examples of women like Teresa of Avila, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and the founders of some 800 women's religious communities engaged in works of mercy, she says,

It seems incredible that the church hierarchy thinks that these women have nothing to say, nothing interesting to suggest. That they are not, that is, indispensable interlocutors to create a viable future for the Church.It seems incredible that the church hierarchy thinks that these women have nothing to say, nothing interesting to suggest. That they are not, that is, indispensable interlocutors to create a viable future for the Church. 

At her A Seat at the Table site, Claire Bangasser remains hopeful that Pope Francis can and will do something to address this imbalance:

Comes Pope Francis. The wave of optimism carried me on its crest and I loved it. Here was someone caring for the poor, warning the rich, looking out for those at the margins, seemingly welcoming the LGBT community, inviting the divorced back... If the Holy Spirit can bring this about, She can also change the status of women in the Church for the better. All this seems even more possible now after the revelation of the omission in America Magazine’s translation of the interview with the Pope.

But some other commentators I've read in the last week are less optimistic about what Francis portends for the future of women in the Catholic church. For instance, at her Perspective blog site, Crystal Watson states,

The thing is that even with the inclusion of the missing sentence, the pope's remarks about women and their role in the church are seriously wanting ... I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man .... The feminine genius .... we must not confuse the function with the dignity. Francis doesn't seem to understand that no "stronger presence" is going to be enough to take the place of ordaining women as priests (and excommunicating people isn't helping). 

The excommunication to which Crystal is referring is the recent excommunication by Pope Francis of Australian priest Gregory Reynolds of Melbourne, who got notice of his excommunication within days after Francis spoke of creating a new tone for the church that focuses less on pelvic issues and more on the gospel. As Marian Ronan notes for Religion Dispatches, "It turns out there are some pelvic issues it’s all right to be obsessed with after all."

Reynolds was excommunicated for advocating the ordination of women and openly gay folks. In Ronan's view, "Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist" who intends to uphold "the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women."

Katha Pollitt agrees. Writing for The Nation, she notes, 

Pope Francis’s record on women so far is a continuation of his conservative predecessors'. "On the ordination of women," he has said, "that door is closed." Church watchers can debate whether he was agreeing with John Paul II’s "definitive" (but not quite infallible) statement on the matter or simply acknowledging a current political reality. Either way, governance of the church will continue to present a Saudi-like front of solid, if not necessarily heterosexual, masculinity, and its all-important sacraments will continue to be dispensed by men alone.

Important conversations. And what strikes me as I continue reading them is that they're taking place at all, after a period in which the words we Catholics heard over and over again from our last two popes, when it came to these conversations, were words like "closed," "definitive," "magisterium," "infallible," "not possible," etc. 

If nothing else, Francis is stirring conversation, and the fact that this conversation remains lively, open, probing--and is taking place!--provides me with some hope. Even as I find myself far more at home with the questions being raised from the margins than with those pushed by power-connected centrists like Phyllis Zagano, for whom the prohibition on ordaining women to the priesthood is a definitive one, case closed, and for whom the ordination of women to the diaconate would be a revolutionary step forward . . . .

P.S. I'd like to draw readers' attention to the list of articles about these topics that I compiled a week ago, as well as to Mary Hunt's Religion Dispatches response to Francis's interview remarks, which I discuss here. The Catholic right has piled on Hunt in a big and exceptionally mean way in the comments thread following that article--which has to indicate that it says something sane and of great importance for the rest of us to hear. 

The graphic: a detail from Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross, a 15th-century oil on panel at the Prado Museum, by way of Wikimedia Commons.

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